Standard Aberration: Cancer Biology and the Modeling Account of Normal Function

Biology and Philosophy 38 (1):(4) 1-33 (2023)
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Cancer biology features the ascription of normal functions to parts of cancers. At least some ascriptions of function in cancer biology track local normality of parts within the global abnormality of the aberration to which those parts belong. That is, cancer biologists identify as functions activities that, in some sense, parts of cancers are supposed to perform, despite cancers themselves having no purpose. The present paper provides a theory to accommodate these normal function ascriptions—I call it the Modeling Account of Normal Function (MA). MA comprises two claims. First, normal functions are activities whose performance by the function-bearing part contributes to the self-maintenance of the whole system and, thereby, results in the continued presence of that part. Second, MA holds that models of system-level activities that are (partly) constitutive of self-maintenance are improved by including a representation of the relevant function-bearing part and by making reference to the activity/activities that part performs which contribute(s) to those system-level activities. I contrast MA with two other accounts that seek to explicate the ascription of normal functions in biology, namely, the organizational account and the selected effects account. Both struggle to extend to cancer biology. However, I offer ecumenical readings which allow them to recover some ascriptions of normal function to parts of cancers. So, though I contend that MA excels in this respect, the purpose of this paper is served if it provides materials for bridging the gap between cancer biology, philosophy of cancer, and the literature on function.

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Seth Goldwasser
University of Pittsburgh


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